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Lethal wastes

By Madhumita Dutta

Around 0.7 million tonnes of asbestos waste from an abandoned mine are poisoning the land, water and vegetation around the Roro Hills of Jharkhand. In 20 years, no state authority has assessed the impact of the waste on the 5,000-strong tribal community that lives within a 5-km radius

Abandoned in 1983, the Roro mine, a chrysotile (white asbestos) mine some 20 km from the district headquarters Chaibasa, West Singhbhum district, in Jharkhand (formerly part of Bihar), has become a health scourge for villagers living at the foothills of the Roro hills. For the past 20 years, a massive pile of nearly 0.7 million tonnes of asbestos waste, mixed with chromite-bearing host rock overburden, has been lying on the top of the Roro hills.

Some 5,000 people and their cattle live within a 5-kilometre radius of the waste. And the forests teem with wildlife.

Twenty years ago, Hyderabad Asbestos Cement Products Limited (now known as Hyderabad Industries Limited), a Birla Group company, used to mine asbestos here, to manufacture asbestos cement products. During its operations, around 4-5 lakh tonnes of asbestos were produced annually. This was one of the largest asbestos mines in India , employing about 1,200 workers, mostly tribals.It’s not known how much profit the company made from the asbestos produced at the Roro mine, but the company’s current annual turnover is around Rs 3.2 billion (US$ 67.4 million).

Over the years, waste from the abandoned mine has seeped into the land, water and bodies of the once self-sufficient Ho community -- the first people of this tribal state. The river Roro flowing down from the hills joins the Subarnarekha downstream, carrying with it tonnes of asbestos waste.

The villagers cultivate small agricultural farms (paddy) at the foothills of the Roro hills, which are slowly (especially the ones right at the bottom of the overburden) being covered in asbestos waste. The waste has extended several metres down the slope, spreading in a small alluvial fan into the paddy fields. It’s a 40-cm-thick sludge of crushed contaminated rock, thinning out at the edges of the fan.

Several smaller waste dump sites at the top of the hills pose a threat to children and the elderly who take this route to graze their animals on the thickly forested higher reaches of the hills. Worse, playing children often slide down the hill slopes raising dusty clouds of lethal waste in their wake.

The Roro hills were originally mined for their chromite by the Tata Iron Ore Company, which has a steel plant and a charge-chrome plant in the region. After acquiring much richer chromium leases in the adjoining state of Orissa, the Tata Iron Ore Company relinquished its mining interests in the area to a mining company owned by the Birlas, one of India’s largest business establishments, that went on to mine both chromite and asbestos. Later, its mining operations were confined to asbestos.

The Roro mine was closed down in 1983when the company realised, after digging deeper into the mines, that the grade of asbestos mined here was not up to scratch.

The mine’s closure was preceded by a period of labour unrest and intense trade union rivalry. Issues of occupational safety, exposure and the health of workers were raised. After closing the mine down, the company shifted all its assets including mining equipment, tools and machinery. Everything except the asbestos waste.

For the past 20 years, no one -- the local administration, the mines and safety department or the mining company -- has bothered to inspect the waste or assess its impact on the environment and on the local community. Although the abandonment of old mines may be a regular feature in India , in this case the health risks to humans and the environment are far greater since asbestos and chromium are known carcinogens.

According to a press release in an old issue of Singbhumi Ekta, a weekly from Chaibasa published between January and August 1981 by the late P Mazumdar, leader of the United Mines Workers Union (AITUC), 30 workers from the Roro mines died of asbestosis (a debilitating lung disease caused by asbestos fibres). The issue was raised in the Indian Parliament by then Member of Parliament Indrajit Gupta, but no action was taken against the company.

The government of Jharkhand recently drafted an industrial policy, inviting Indian and multinational companies to exploit Jharkhand’s riches especially in the mining and energy sector. But in its frantic march towards ‘development’ and economic gain, the state has overlooked the history of criminal negligence by mining companies that, in their pursuit of profit, have left behind degraded forests, toxic waste and poisoned communities. Roro mine is just one such example.

In December 2002, a fact-finding team constituted by M ines, Minerals & People (MM&P), a national network of mining struggle groups, and the Jharkhandis’ Organisation for Human Rights (JOHAR), a human rights group, visited the area to carry out a preliminary assessment of the asbestos waste and its impact. They followed it up with an indicative health survey, in January-February 2003, whose findings suggest that the careless closure of the mines and the unscientific disposal of toxic asbestos and chromite waste by the company posed a serious threat to the health of the local community and the environment. The cross-sectional health survey of 14 villages around the Roro hills (45% of respondents were former workers of the Roro mine) indicated a probable link between working in the asbestos mines and various persistent health problems. The survey clearly showed that mine (especially asbestos mine) workers had greater chances of developing low back pain, shortness of breath (dyspnoea), blood in their sputum (haemoptysis), and hearing and visual loss.

Despite several representations to individuals and state and central government agencies like the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board, the Central Pollution Control Board, the director general of mines and safety, the state mining department and the district collector, Chaibasa, the government has taken no action. Nor have any remedial measures been taken at the site. Even a public hearing organised by JOHAR and the MM&P for those affected by asbestos wastes (attended by over 1,500 people) failed to initiate any action on the part of the government. Surprisingly, there has been no public response to the fact-finding report or the public hearing from Hyderabad Industries Limited.

Meanwhile, the state geological department has visited the site to explore new mining possibilities. JOHAR has requested the Supreme Court-constituted Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Wastes and Chemicals to intervene in this matter.

(Madhumita Dutta is an activist based in Delhi. She is currently associated with the Corporate Accountability and Environmental Health Desk, The Other Media, Delhi)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2004